14th Apr 2021

Seeing Red! – What is Red Teaming, and what is its Value?

BLUF: It is cheaper and safer to discover the flaws and opportunities for improvement in a safe environment with an effective Red Team, than to find out in the wild, facing real consequences and costs!

In military circles there is a famous and, frankly clichéd, quote regarding planning; it’s often misattributed, misquoted or partially quoted as:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy”

The original quote came from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a Prussian Field Marshal in the mid-nineteenth century; “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.”

Helmuth von Moltke (1800–1891).

There is another famous Prussian with even greater influence in Military circles; Carl von Clausewitz, known colloquially as ‘The Dead Prussian’; There is much in Clausewitz’ work that has relevance to communications strategies as well, but that is for another article. However, this quote is apt:

‘The influence of theoretical truths on practical life is always exerted more through critical analysis than through doctrine…It is vital to analyse everything to its basic elements, to incontrovertible truth.  One must not stop half-way, as is so often done, in some arbitrary assumption or hypothesis.’ Carl Von Clausewitz

What has this to do with Engagement and Communications?

All good communicators create plans; some more detailed than others! In UK Government Communications, it is expected that all communications programmes or campaigns have a [C]OASIS plan. Best practice civilian organisations have similar constructs that consider the strategic and operational elements intrinsic in good planning. In simplistic format; these plans cover the Who, Why, What, and How, and they should also cover off the When and Whom, and ideally they define the success criteria and measurement means too!

But how useful are these plans once we move from planning to execution or delivery of our communications?

  • How detailed do they get?
  • Do we refer back to them on a regular basis?
  • How robust and resilient are they?

If we are honest with ourselves, the answers to these questions are often not very positive, are they?

So what happens instead?

We typically use these plans to ‘sell’ the idea, get stakeholder support, brief the teams, internal and external, and then maybe use them to review the detailed/tactical execution proposals prior to execution.

That all seems reasonable, yes?

However, this all presumes that a) we have thought about every aspect and b) everything goes to as expected, throughout the whole campaign!

Now, you may well be thinking; we know the world isn’t ideal and we do think about different options, and we spend a little bit of time planning for contingencies, usually the most likely ones. In fact, they are probably the least likely, due to the fact you’ve probably taken steps to avoid the situation occurring, or you’ve assessed the issue as being manageable ‘if’ it happens – “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!”

  • Is that sufficient to build-in resilience?
  • How deep do your contingency plans go?
  • Have you really thought of everything?
  • Have you allowed the root elements of the plan to be fundamentally challenged?
  • Do you have a sufficient understanding of your audiences and your competition: How they work? What are their motivations and objectives? How might they react?

Perhaps it is fair to say “You have considered that it MAY not go to plan.”

But have you accepted, fully, as Moltke the Elder warns us;

The programme WILL NOT follow plan [A]!

This is the domain of Red Teaming

What is Red Teaming then?

Red Teaming isn’t a particularly new concept, although it’s still not widely implemented. Civilian and Government organisations have espoused the benefits or Red Teams, and several guides have been published on the topic.

It is also far more than simply ‘being the devil’s advocate for a moment’ – always a popular move in any meeting! 😉

The UK Defence Concepts and Doctrine Centre’s Guide to Red Teaming (2nd Edn. 2013) offers this definition:

Red teaming is the independent application of a range of structured, creative and critical thinking techniques to assist the end user make a better informed decision or produce a more robust product.

And for doctrine, this is comparatively easy to understand (doctrine frequently suffers from jargon and complex writing).

NATO refers to Red Teaming as ‘Alternative Analysis (AltA)’ and in its 2017 2nd Edn. AltA Handbook offers this:

AltA is the deliberate application of independent, critical thought and alternative perspective to improve decision-making.

Drawing from both, I explain Red Teaming as:

Independent, Informed, Critical and Creative Thinking
that helps Improve the plan or product.

Red Team
Red Team

Utilising a Red Team is referred to Red Teaming [simples 😊]

There are defined processes and structured approaches to Red Teaming, and you can easily search online for the papers and guides on the topic. However, in its most pragmatic form;

Red Teaming iteratively asks – What If and Then ?

What if [this] happens? You react and Then… What If [this] happens…. (and Repeat)

Of course, there is more complexity and nuance to the process, and by necessity, Red Teaming can result in some fairly robust lines of analysis and challenge – and this is where Independence is Critical. No-one wants to make their superiors or frankly friends and colleagues look bad; nobody likes being told their baby is ugly!

Along with ‘independence’ and ‘freedom to challenge’, there are two additional essential elements to effective Red Teaming.

Firstly, alternative but informed thinking; this is the ability to consider as many permutations to the situation as possible, but for these to be based on objective analysis and understanding. It is not simply about dreaming up outlandish ways of derailing the plan, but rather a credible alternative that has some defendable likelihood of happening. This includes covering ‘Why’ such an alternative might occur, and what benefit it may have to a competitor or why an audience may react in such a manner.

Secondly, depth of analysis; going deeper into the consequential analysis will often unearth weaknesses that were not apparent during the initial contingency planning activities. This process is akin to Critical Path Analysis or Branch Path Analysis and requires some diligence and invested time to be worthwhile. The deeper the analysis, the less likely we are to face the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What makes a good Red Team?

It should be becoming apparent now, that the make-up of the Red Team is as important as the process of Red Teaming. Here are some considerations/criteria:

  • Diversity – the more cognitively diverse your Red Team is, the more robust and alternative the creative and critical analysis is likely to be!
  • Informed and Experienced – understanding your audience, market, competitors or adversaries, and how they may behave and why is vital; however, this also needs to be within the domain of your planned activities.
  • Independent and genuinely free and willing to challenge without fear of reprisals either in the short or long term. In military circles, the Red Team should be Rank Agnostic, ideally operating without Rank Insignia, and in civilian organisations, Job Titles / Organisational Level should also be irrelevant and undisclosed.
  • Hybrid Thinkers – by this, I refer to the ability to think and operate both Strategically (‘Big Picture’) and Tactically (‘the devil is in the detail’).
  • External – ideally entirely separate from your organisation, commercially; or at least from outside the reporting line or chain of command. This is often a prerequisite for point (3)

Not just Contingency Planning … but a means to improve the primary plan.

By now, I hope that you can see that Red Teaming is not just about ‘contingency planning’. It is in fact, about improving the planning process; regardless of whether this is for a Product; a Service Offering; a Communications Campaign or Engagement Programme; Information Operations or Influence Activities or Military Manoeuvres or any planned Course of Action.

By including Red Teaming in your planning and development process, you are able to explore areas that your internal team may have overlooked, prepare for countermoves, and avoid unintended consequences. When this happens, your Red Teams can also change mode and become White; providing transparent advice and support.

The ideal model is to Red Team early, iteratively and before key delivery events. Your plan then becomes a valuable and effective handrail that continues to support your activities and allows your organisation to be more resilient, more agile and ultimately more effective.

Why bother with all this time and cost?

 ‘…if ignorant of both your enemy and yourself you are bound to be in peril…’ Sun Tzu

Well, there are many examples of plans going awry. The consequences may be reputational and may also carry direct costs.

But, as with anything, there is a Risk/Reward decision to be made…

  • How critical is it that everything goes smoothly?
  • How likely is it that anything ‘major’ could go wrong?
  • What might the cost be if something goes wrong?
  • Couldn’t we just stop, abandon the activity ‘write off the costs’?

The paradox is, of course, how do you confidently answer these questions if you haven’t engaged a Red Team?

i3 Gen provides a Red Team service for Communications and Engagement planning; and a Specialist Red Information Operations Team [R.I.O.T].

If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch…

We would love to hear your views on Red Teaming:

  1. Do you regularly Red Team your communications plans? Or just the most critical ones?
  2. What have been your experiences of Red Teaming? (Good or Bad)
  3. What factors do you consider important in a Red Team make-up?
  4. How can we encourage organisations to make more effective use of Red Teaming?
Integrated Red Team
Integrated Red Team